“O man, run through all creation with your thought, and see if there exists anything comparable to or greater than the holy Virgin, Mother of God. Circle the whole world, explore all the oceans, survey the air, question the skies, consider all the unseen powers, and see if there exists any other similar wonder in the whole creation… Count, then, the portents, and wonder at the superiority of the Virgin; she alone, in a way beyond words, received into her bridal chamber him before whom all creation kneels with fear and trembling.” – Proclus of Constantinople, Homily 5
“Mary, the holy Virgin, is truly great before God and men. For how shall we not proclaim her great, who held within her the uncontainable One, whom neither heaven nor earth can contain?” -Epiphanius, Panarion
“For as Eve was seduced by the word of an angel to flee from God, having rebelled against His Word, so Mary by the word of an angel received the glad tidings that she would bear God by obeying his Word. The former was seduced to disobey God, but the latter was persuaded to obey God, so that the Virgin Mary might become the advocate of the virgin Eve. As the human race was subjected to death through [the act of] a virgin, so it was saved by a virgin.” -Irenaeus, Against Heresies
“O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all O Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which divinity resides.” -Athanasius, Homily of the Papyrus of Turin
When we talk about Mariology, we talk about theological concepts like the Immaculate Conception, perpetual virginity, and terms like Theotokos (“Mother of God”) and Panagia (“All Holy”). Sometimes, there’s debate about the development and acceptance of these ideas. Reading Mary and the Fathers of the Church, it’s clear that there wasn’t always complete agreement or perfect understanding of these concepts. However, one thing that’s abundantly clear is that Mary was always venerated and loved by Christians.
At the beginning of this post, I included quotes from a variety of Church Fathers from all different corners of the Early Church. These quotations (which are from Father Luigi Gambero’s book Mary and the Fathers of the Church) show Christians who thought Mary was indeed worthy of our affection and was actually capable of giving us aid. As wonderful as these passages are, I believe the most important example of Marian devotion is a prayer called the Sub Tuum Praesidium:
Beneath your compassion,
We take refuge, O Mother of God:
do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:
but rescue us from dangers,
only pure, only blessed one.
What we see in this prayer is not just reverence for Mary as the “Mother of God.” Neither do we merely see veneration for her as the “only pure, only blessed one.” We see an explicit and earnest appeal for her help. The imagery of the prayer should be apparent to any father or mother. When our children are nervous, scared, or overwhelmed, they often fly to us to grasp our legs and stand beneath us, confident that we will certainly help and protect them. So it is with our mother in heaven. Mary is described as a refuge for her children and a vessel of God’s grace. Many Catholics today ask Mary to wrap her “mantle of protection” around us. This appeal is an ancient one.
The name of the prayer, Sub Tuum, is drawn from the Latin translation but the earliest copy we have was written in Greek and comes from no later than 250 AD. This version of the prayer was actually used in the Coptic Christmas Liturgy in Egypt. That’s incredibly early! Especially since this isn’t a homily or letter from an individual Church Father but part of the liturgy. This means that before there was a canon of Scripture and before there was a Nicene creed, veneration and intercession of Mary was so widely accepted as to be established in the liturgy of the Church.
The universal and institutional nature of Marian devotion in the Early Church means we shouldn’t hesitate to embrace the Mother of God. In my introduction to this series about Mary, I mentioned how I accepted Marian theology mostly because I was convinced the Church was right on other issues. Mariology was just the baggage that came along with the the Magisterium. I’ve heard plenty of other converts express similar sentiments; that all the “Mary stuff” followed an acceptance of Church authority or belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But, when we look at the Church Fathers, veneration of Mary is one of the surest theological marks of early Christianity. For almost all of these theologians and writers, singing hymns to Mary and asking for her aid were obvious and natural practices.
These days, a lot of Protestants have a new interest in reclaiming “Catholic” practices like lent, advent, liturgy, and lectionary readings. There’s also interest in the historical Church and the Church Fathers. I think this is great! But, if you want your faith to look like that of the Early Church, you have to venerate Mary. I’m not arguing here that you have to join the Roman Catholic Church to do this (although, I absolutely think you should). But, if you want your Christianity to be like that of the first centuries, you’ll have to sing songs about Mary, honor her, and ask for her intercession. Reading the Church Fathers, I’m convinced that Marian devotion is an indispensable part of Christian practice. Many Protestants will say that Catholic devotion to Mary goes to far. That we say too much about her. That veneration becomes worship. As with any theological concept, there is always a danger of abuse, of going too far in one direction or the other. This is perhaps most clear in Christology. Here, deviating from saying just the right thing about Christ’s divinity and humanity has been the source of countless heresies. But the theological answer to Gnosticism is not Arianism. That is to say, if someone overemphasizes Christ’s divinity, you shouldn’t simply deny Christ’s divinity altogether (yes, I know that’s an oversimplification of those heresies but humor me). The same is true of Mary. If you think Catholic devotion to Mary strays into idolatry, the answer cannot be to ignore Mary and deny everything the Church has said about her for 2,000 years.
For Protestants interested in early Church practices and converts who may be hesitant to fully embrace Mary, know that what the Roman Catholic Church says about her isn’t some late medieval addition to Christianity. The practice of asking her aid is both ancient and well-documented. Mary is the greatest of all creatures, she is our mother, and she desires to help us. If you’re uncomfortable with any of this perhaps you might consider taking up the simple prayer, Sub tuum.